It was the same job he always does, all over the city, and Jim Hughes went at it the same way, attacking the layers of unwanted spray paint with chemical gel, hot steam, and elbow grease. But this time, instead of an Allston storefront or a brick wall in East Boston, Hughes was on the sidewalks of Boylston Street, laboring to erase all traces of a tragedy that transformed the city.
Working into the wee hours Tuesday morning, Hughes and his four-man city crew scrubbed away the orange markings left there by investigators: the grid that divided the bombing site into sectors; the identifying number next to every fragment of evidence. Hughes was focused, as he always is, on the task before him.
But as street sweepers hummed up and down the blacktop behind him, and workers in hazmat suits cleaned away the blood, he thought about the people who would soon be coming back to homes and businesses — the dread that they might feel — and the small help it might give them to find something normal there.
“That’s our job, to make it as clean as it should be, so people walking by can’t tell what was there,” Hughes, a 60-something Jamaica Plain native, said in his gravelly voice. “Memory fades everything, and time eats it away, and so you want to try and put it back the way it was.”
Dispatched to the Back Bay late Monday afternoon by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Hughes and his crew waited outside the barricades as the FBI returned control of Boylston Street to the city in a brief 5 p.m. ceremony.
They waited as a bagpiper played, and as federal agents handed the mayor a commemorative flag that had flown at half-staff over the Marathon finish line.
At about 5:30 p.m., they were allowed into the area to get to work. Crews from the Department of Public Works were also there, picking up latex gloves, protective booties, and other trash discarded by investigators, while some business owners replaced shattered windows and firefighters trained in hazardous materials focused on cleaning the blood-stained sidewalks, Hughes said.
‘That’s our job, to make it as clean as it should be, so people walking by can’t tell what was there.’
As dusk fell, Hughes and his crew started stripping off the chaotic maze of orange paint, slapping gallons of chemical gel on it with long-handled paint rollers, and then, after waiting for the gel to soften the paint, blasting it with pressurized hot steam. There were numbers and grid markings everywhere — on the sidewalks; in the middle of the street; by the library — but the densest coverage was around the two explosion sites.
There, Hughes said, he and his men went through their motions over and over before the paint lifted: gel, steam, once, twice. Three times.
Still traces remaining. Again, then, until not a particle remained.
“We erased it,” he said, “the evidence of what went on, so people won’t see anything. That’s what’s important.”
Hughes has spent a dozen years with the city’s Graffiti Busters team, a creation of the mayor that operates out of the division of Construction and Property Management. He likes cleaning things up, the satisfaction of wiping away destruction. Springtime is the start of his busy season, when he oversees an annual washdown of Fenway Park, and when complaints about graffiti start to ramp up, sending him to neighborhoods all across the city. Sometimes, when graffiti is hateful, police are involved, but more typically he deals with grateful business owners.
Unaware, until Monday afternoon, what his assignment would be, Hughes reported to Boylston Street in a summer jacket and short sleeves, where he worked until 1 a.m. as temperatures dipped into the 40s. There was no place open to buy any dinner or coffee, as the hours went on and the street slowly emptied of workers.
But Hughes said he didn’t notice the discomfort.
He was thinking, now and then as he worked, about his daughter, who goes to see the Red Sox play every Patriots Day and often ends up at the finish line of the Marathon. Last Monday, he said, she didn’t get that far. After the bombs went off, she called him and he drove to pick her up.
“You think how it could have been your kids, your friends,” he said. “I had a nephew there, whose brother was running the race. It could very well have been them standing there.”
After midnight passed he walked the street, in the glow from DPW floodlights that they rolled from site to site, to make sure nothing had been missed. It was quiet, he said, he and his crew the last workers remaining, the loudest sound the low rumble of the generators. He was struck by the eerie strangeness of it, “the dead of night, and no one walking on Boylston Street.”
By 1 a.m., he was satisfied the job was done. He went home to Hyde Park and took a long hot shower, and by 6:30 a.m., he was back at his office, he said, waiting to see where he would be needed next.
“You can’t dwell on things,” he said. “Life just keeps moving, and you’ve got to keep going, living life normally, the way you always have.”
Was it strange, a reporter asked him, to think how he would never face a job like that again?
Hughes sat perfectly still for a moment.
“You hope so, God willing,” he said.